When I studied Mandarin in Hong Kong in the early 90s, there were two places in the territory to practice the language. One was a little enclave inhabited by former KMT officers. The other was an antiques street on Hong Kong Island. Look for the shops with the Mao busts, my teachers said.
Of course there were also China and Taiwan. Since I’d been to China a couple times at that point, I chose to spend my spring break in Taipei.
What could possibly go wrong?
In planning a week-long trip to Taiwan, I consulted the Taiwan Lonely Planet guidebook, although I don’t remember ever owning it. That’s where I found the Taipei Hostel.
This was easily the most depressing place I’d ever stayed. Just look at this photo.
It was a co-ed dorm and the first time I’d traveled alone–at the age of 20–without staying with friends or friends of friends. As luck would have it, the American man stationed above me in the top bunk turned out to be a xenophobe. On my first night, he peered into my lower bunk space and questioned my choice of learning Mandarin (remember we were in Taiwan) and why I hadn’t chosen Japanese.
“Because Japan is taking over America,” he said, “Japanese would come in quite handy.”
Before I could reply to this outrageous remark, he corrected himself.
“No, no. If you were really smart you’d study Hebrew.”
That’s where I tuned him out. I was also frightened and hoped he wouldn’t figure out I was Jewish.
Because of this encounter, I spent all my waking time in the hostel parked in common room watching Taiwanese soap operas. And every morning, I would leave the hostel for the Lai Lai Sheraton, where I’d sit in the lobby, pretending I was staying there and writing postcards to family and friends.
The hostel had some private rooms and one night I recognized one of those renters from a talk I’d heard him present in Hong Kong. This American guy was working in Taipei and living at this hostel. That was almost more depressing than my nutty bunkmate.